For fans of contemporary Irish writers— and I know there are many of you out there— here is an author to put on your bookshelves beside Colm Toibin, Sebastian Barry, Anne Enright, J.M. Synge and Neil Jordan, to name but a few. Published in 2012, this slim volume was the winner of the Book of the Year at the Irish Book Awards in 2012, and long-listed for the Guardian First Book Award in 2013, as well as the Man Booker Prize that same year. Since then Ryan has gone on to write The Thing About December (2013), A Slanting of the Sun (2015) and All We Shall Know (2016).
The Spinning Heart is set in Ireland in2007. The country, like much of the world, had been experiencing an economic renaissance, only to see it all fall apart within a few years. The events that befall the small town, located somewhere in the County Tipperary/County Clare area, are not so different than anywhere else, but Ryan’s telling of the tale, from the perspective of 21 locals, is what sets this book apart. Consider this opener:
“My father still lives back the road past the weir in the cottage I was reared in. I go there every day to see is he dead and every day he lets me down. He hasn’t yet missed a day of letting me down. He smiles at me; that terrible smile. He knows I’m coming to check is he dead. He knows I know he knows…We look at each other for a while and when I can no longer stand the stench off of him I go away. Good luck, I say, I’ll see you tomorrow. You will, he says back. I know I will. Every day he lives lowers the price I’ll get (for the cottage). He knows that too; he stays alive to spite me….I was let go from my job two months ago and it was the best medicine he could have got. It gave him an extra six months, I’d say. If he ever finds out how Pokey Burke shafted me, he’ll surely make a full recovery.”
Each of the 21 characters, young and old, male and female, has a chapter to him or herself, expressing thoughts and feelings in a distinctively Irish way: Quare – queer; auld fella – father; wan- girlfriend, to name but a few. Certainly one of the very enjoyable aspects of the book once you get past the difficulty (for me anyway) of decoding the jargon, is the earthy quality of the language and culture these inhabitants of the Irish countryside bring to life. Bobby Mahon, the narrator of the first chapter in which he lets the reader know in no uncertain terms how he feels about his “da”, is one of the most eloquent and well-spoken of the group. As a casualty of the economic collapse, Bobby, although one of the most solid and well-respected of the villagers, is flirting with his own personal implosion. Ultimately Bobby emerges as the main character, with the subsequent chapters offering personal, unique glimpses into Bobby’s personality and actions. He is the connecting thread that runs throughout the book.
When Bobby’s odious, drunken father, Frank, turns up dead, the townsfolk generally assume it was Bobby who killed him, but few condemned him for it. Interestingly, in Frank’s chapter, the reader learns about Frank’s past and why he is such a difficult to be with, much less love. One of the hallmarks of Ryan‘s approach to his story is compassion, even for such a low-life as Frank. “I was never able to talk to that boy without upsetting him. His mother had a fool made out of him, kissing him and telling him he was beautiful every two minutes. I was forced to bring balance. I had to prepare him for the hard world….He’d have gotten some hop if I’d left him off out thinking he was the boy his mother told him he was. She only ever had eyes for him from his first days on this earth…The sadder she looked the faster the brutal sharp words flowed from me, some making tiny little nicks, more tearing deep into her. Her soul suffered death by a thousand million cuts. I knew I was doing it and I couldn’t stop.”
With each chapter the reader learns a little more about life in that time and place: Josie (Joseph)Burke, Pokey’s father, worked hard for years, but was cursed with a son who had no soul and very few smarts, who squandered his family’s fortune and hung the town out to dry; Realtin, the shallow single mother living in one of the two occupied homes on the “ghost estate” that resulted from Pokey’s departure, and who is rumored to be having an affair with Bobby when he tries to help her finish her home; Hillary, Realtin’s best friend, who is determined to set her straight on the way things REALLY are regarding Bobby’s presence in her life.
For me, appreciation for the author’s purpose and style only came during our book club discussion. While I was reading it, I kept trying to locate a plot, a tangible story line, a climax. Don’t do this: you risk overlooking the beauty of the prose, and Ryan’s skill in getting into the “heads” of all 21 characters. What seemed fragmented and incomplete to me upon first reading emerged as a technically difficult but beautiful tour de force, well worth the time you will spend on it.